I was lucky enough to attend my 1st artist residency in August 2017.
After successfully Crowdfunding I travelled to Dakar at the beginning of the month.
My arrival at the airport in Dakar, following an overnight stay in Madrid was fairly traumatic. I have since read somewhere that a regular world traveller named Leopold Sedar Senghor airport ‘the worst in the world’ and I can only agree. Being a poor french speaker meant I was somewhat vulnerable and after a very hot wait for passport control and baggage claim ( my luggage did arrive!) I was accosted by enthusiastic taxi drivers in the mayhem and dragged away to their car with very little chance of escape. I was meant to be met and deep down, knew these weren’t my designated drivers but once they had hold of my bags had no choice but to follow! Thankfully they did take me to my hotel and charged me handsomely for the ride…welcome to Senegal!
After a good nights sleep I met up with the 2 other artists staying at the same hotel and we waited for the car to take us the 5 hour journey north to Saint-Louis.
What a great way to see the country; leaving the chaos of Dakar we travelled to Thies, past street markets bursting with mangoes and sellers crowding the taxi at every opportunity. As the journey progressed north we were regularly stopped by the police, although never expected to get out of the car and again with little French and no Wolof had no idea why! There were horses pulling carts, women selling peanuts, children shouting ‘Toubab’..that was us; white people, it was a whirlwind of sound and smells and new exciting sites. With my keen bird watching eyes I spotted flashes of blue in the distance and in the trees above the markets yellow Weaver birds.
It was hot, so very hot, hotter than I have ever known, humid too, as August is the wet season.
Our driver stopped at a giant hollow baobab tree for us to take a look. The baobabs, for me reminiscent of ‘The Little Prince’ were majestic and this one was huge. Next to the tree were craftsmen carving animals from the wood and of course we were really there to peruse their wares in the hope of a sale! After a few minutes we were surrounded by curious boys wanting their photograph taken…we obliged and made a quick retreat from the heat back into the car.
Saint-Louis, our final destination, used to be the capital of Senegal…it is a city of ‘used to s’, there was once an airport there and the train used to travel there too…we often glimpsed the redundant tracks on our journey.
There aren’t many big towns in Senegal and so although the road north takes you through Thies, where there is a university, mostly it is villages and a lot of nothing between Dakar and Saint-Louis.
At the approach to Saint- Louis you start to see water, like lakes on both sides of the road. The sky widens as you get closer to the coast. And there is the rubbish, at the waters edge, piles of it, inhabited by wading birds and goats.
Saint-Louis has 3 parts to it, the mainland which we drove through. The streets lined with carpentry workshops, outside of which there are enormous carved beds; metal workshops; clothes stalls and people; sitting, talking, walking and being. As the road goes on, past the bus station, the street gets busier with taxis, often black and yellow Renaults, often with cracked windscreens; horses pulling carts, some carrying people’ la Caleche’, and some pulling goods…the pace becomes a little slower. On the left is the market and on the right the iconic bridge Pont Faidherbe, designed by Eiffel and rebuilt with aid from the French government, across which is the 2nd part (as I saw it) to Saint- Louis, L’ile de Saint-Louis and my home for a month.
On the bridge you can see south along the thin strip of land that is Langue de barbaries over the sparkling waters of the Senegal river. Saint- Louis is where the river meets the sea and the island is nestled between this and the land that ends in a sandy point to the south and becomes Mauritania to the North.
We turned right once across the bridge and after 2 blocks a left turn took us to the Maison Waaw, we had arrived, it was 3pm and I was hungry!
The Maison Waaw is a white painted large building, entered from a dusty back street which leads to the river and into a central courtyard where we met Jarmo, our Waaw host and the other artists from all over the world.
After a tour we were allocated our rooms, mine was upstairs at the front of the building, a large room with a single bed and mosquito net, a desk and cupboard, the essential fan and double doors out onto a balcony which overlooked the street. I had the use of a large space outside my room to use as my studio at the end of which was a bathroom with a shower (cold only)and toilet.
There were 10 bedrooms in the house and 2 kitchens with a fridge and camping stove and sink. There were 2 roof terraces, perfect for drying washing and drumming and for me to come, sitting early in the morning watching the swifts and feeling the sea breeze before the onslaught of the sun.
Almost opposite the house was La Linguere, a restaurant well known in Saint-Louis for traditional Senegalese cooking, inexpensive and still with food so late after lunch, we all piled in and I had my 1st taste of Thieboudieune, a mildly spicy dish of rice and vegetables,and very welcome it was.
Everything felt so new and slightly scary, the island is a small place, about a mile from point to point and 6 streets across, everyone knows everyone, and so when Jarmo gave us and little tour later on, a group of white faces, we were noticed and called to and curious eyes followed us everywhere.
It was on this tour that we crossed a smaller bridge where the waters edge was a mass of painted wooden long boats colourful and a roost for egrets,these were pirogues, traditional fishing boats and they make quite a sight.
We turned left after the bridge, this was the 3rd part to Saint-Louis; 3 highly populated areas between the river and the sea which at 1st I thought was a whole other island. We walked along the river and then crossed back over another bridge back to the house to rest.
A long couple of days and my residency had begun.
Oh what joy for me to be able to make work in response to a place, not for commercial gain, not dictated by someone else’s agenda just my own and for a whole month!
It took me a week to acclimatise to the heat, swollen ankles and a new rash appearing each day. It wasn’t sensible to try and do anything outside between 12 and 4pm and so this became my time for thinking, painting and planning the work I was going to make with the wool fibre I had brought from the Cambrian mountains.
On the 2nd day taking a walk in the late afternoon with 2 of my fellow artists we were offered a tour of Guet Ndar, the fisherman’s village across the bridge towards the sea.
Kita, one of my friends, was french and so we were able to communicate with our self appointed guide and he soon became aware that I was interested in birds and so made it his mission to introduce us to a pelican that lived in the village.
Guet Ndar is a village of brieze block and corrugated tin houses inhabited by families living many to one room and sheep. The skinniest, clean white sheep I have ever seen, tethered by one leg outside the house during the day and bedding down somewhere inside the door at night. Narrow streets filled with women washing clothes and preparing food and children running around I would have been too fearful to walk through by myself. It is a place of great activity and we were ‘toubabs’ peering at the spectacle…it wasn’t so much threatening as different, the villagers not starving but poor.
Our guide lead us through the mayhem while children demanded their photo taken and I had to watch my step for fear of treading on something, or someone. All the time he told us of the pelican; it was found as a chick and then brought to the house to live with the sheep. So enamoured with one particular sheep it had become that our guide referred to them as husband and wife and if anyone dared to go near the sheep the pelican would go for them.
Not a fanciful tale at all as we found out when we reached the home of the unlikely pair and he demonstrated. How big Pelicans are and what fantastic beaks they have and how scary they are when you come between them and their love!….the idea for my 1st piece of work was born!
Our tour continued on through the village and onto the beach, a vast expanse of sand stretching in both directions. Every year as sea levels rise houses are washed away but what can these families do…in fact without being too gloomy most of Saint- Louis may well be under water one day.
At the far end of the village before the sand stretches on and the few hotels dotted along the beach begin, there is the place where the women salt the fish. A place of brown, of rusty tin barrels filled with crusty fish, the smell was fishy and salty and rancid and of the sea.
As our tour ended so began the negotiation of payment for services rendered. This became fairly heated as the sack of rice asked for was pricey and too much but Kita drove a good bargain and in the end everyone was happy.
Such is life in Saint-Louis as I found out, everyone is happy to help